Kevin Markham takes a look at the Royal Birkdale as the course prepares to host The Open Championship.
You could call it the Van de Velde moment that got away. Leading by two shot in the final round, Pádraig Harrington stood on Royal Birkdale’s 17th fairway and called for his five wood. I covered my eyes in despair and when I opened them, the crowds were roaring and his ball was four feet from the hole. To this day I still think it was a crazy shot to play. The replay showed the ball landing short of the green, just clearing the bunker. Yes, it ended up four feet from the cup, leading to an eagle three, and yes, it became one of the greatest shots in Open Championship history, but it was a risk he simply didn’t need to take.
As the Open returns to Royal Birkdale for the 146th staging of the event, Pádraig Harrington, now 45, has found some form and will undoubtedly see himself in the mix come this weekend.
His new, if unorthodox swing is working well for him and Irish hearts will be beating fast at the prospect of the Irishman adding to his Claret Jug collection. His victory at Royal Birkdale in 2008 made him the first European since James Braid in 1906 to retain the trophy.
For those who like a good pub quiz, here are four questions around 2008: who came second? (Ian Poulter); who was Harrington’s partner on the final day? (53-year-old Greg Norman); why did Harrington almost not play? (a wrist injury sustained in the days before the event); and who was the leading amateur… who came fifth? (Chris Wood)?
Royal Birkdale is part of a famous strip of courses just to the north of Liverpool.
This stretch of coastline is home to several links, including Royal Lytham & St Annes, Formby, and Southport & Ainsdale. It is Royal Birkdale, however, which garners the most attention. It is ranked among England’s top five courses and boasts bigger dunes than Scotland’s Open courses and both Royal Lytham, just to the north, and Royal Liverpool, to the south. It also has the reputation for being one of the toughest, alongside Carnoustie, for this is wind-blown and the crosswinds off the Irish Sea wreak havoc.
The holes lie quite flat between the tall dunes which chaperone proceedings. It therefore rewards accurate play, something the wind makes all the more difficult. Green sites are often set in the dunes, making for attractive targets, and it is that element of target golf that the professionals like so much… that and the calm fairways. Here, there are far fewer of the links’ idiosyncrasies that can hurt even good shots. The course works in two loops and the two par fives appear in the final four holes, offering leaderboard-leaping potential. In 2008, Harrington eagled the 17th twice. There are no sea views of note as the course lies slightly inland but Royal Birkdale does boast a distinctive Art Deco clubhouse. It was
designed to resemble an ocean liner careering through the dunes.
Royal Birkdale was founded in 1889, but quickly moved to its current location in Birkdale Hills, in 1897, where a new 18 hole course had been developed by George Low. Fred Hawtree and JH Taylor remodelled it in 1931. The club received its Royal charter in 1951, from King George VI, and hosted its first Open three years later. Following the Open in 1991, it was decided that underlying problems with the greens had to be tackled and all 18 greens were dug up and redesigned ahead of the 1998 Open. Ahead of the 2008 Open, another Hawtree — Martin, the grandson of Fred — added new fairway bunkers and controversially redesigned the 17th green.
It has been modified since then.
The Open has been played at Royal Birkdale nine times and the roll of honour reads:
Padraig Harrington on +3 (won by four shots).
Mark O’Meara on Level (won in a play-off).
Ian Baker-Finch on -8 (won by two shots).
Tom Watson on -9 (won by one shot).
Johnny Miller on -9 (won by six shots).
Lee Trevino on -10 (won by one shot).
Peter Thomson on -3 (won by two shots, from Christy O’Connor Senior).
Arnold Palmer on -4 (won by one shot).
Peter Thomson on -5 (won by one shot).
The course has also hosted the Walker and Curtis Cups, the Women’s British Open (six times), and two Ryder Cups (1965 and 1969).
Arnold Palmer — 1961
A plaque marks the spot where the King played a shot on Royal Birkdale’s 16th following a poor drive. At the time, the British golf writer Henry Longhurst wrote that Palmer’s ball was lying at “the bottom of a small, sandy bank, buried deep in some blackberry bushes”.
Rather than play safe, Palmer used a six iron and crushed his ball on to the green. He won the Open by a single shot.
Lee Trevino —1971
Lee Trevino won the 100th Open to sit alongside Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, and Ben Hogan as golfers who have won the Open and the US Open in the same year. This select club also includes Tiger Woods (2000). Of extra-curricular interest is the story of Trevino’s £13,000 in winnings. En route to his practice round, he met a pair of nuns who told him they were praying for him to win. Trevino thanked them and promptly promised them £5,000 if he won. The nuns turned up to collect on the Sunday afternoon and Trevino still maintains that despite winning the tournament, he actually lost money.
“After travelling over there with [wife] Claudia, paying his caddie, and donating £5,000 to the nuns, I was in the hole.” Some late night partying at a popular nightclub and casino, the Kingsway, didn’t help either.
Seve Ballesteros — 1976
The legend of Seve will live on and on. His style of play made him a huge attraction to watch and in his first ever Open, as England sweltered in a heatwave, he blazed away at the course. He led going into the final day and while he ultimately lost to Johnny Miller, his eagle on the 17th was followed by the most audacious pitch on the 18th. Seve pulled his approach left and was faced with a terrifying shot over two deep bunkers. Seve saw a different route: he played a nine iron out of the rough and ran the ball between the bunkers rather than over them. He left it three feet from the pin and sank the par putt to knock Jack Nicklaus into third place.
Justin Rose — 1998 Open
Harrington’s five wood may stir Irish memories of Royal Birkdale, but it was the home grown 17-year-old amateur, Justin Rose, who catapulted the 1998 Open into the hearts of golfers everywhere. On his final hole, with the ball sitting in the rough, he holed his pitch shot to finish in a tie for fourth, one place behind Tiger Woods. Several years later, Rose said: “I haven’t watched the video for a good few years, but in the past when I hadn’t been playing well, it was good to put it on and I always cranked the volume up to maximum when we get to the last shot.”
Pádraig Harrington — 2008
Harrington played some magical golf on that final day in 2008, but it was on the par five 17th where his wand proved to be a five wood. Standing on the fairway, with a two-shot lead, he had 272 yards to the flag. The wind blew hard off the left and with such a narrow entrance to the green, Harrington started the ball over the grandstand on the left. He calculated the wind perfectly, carrying the front left bunker by inches and rolling on and on until it stopped four feet from the cup. He knocked in the putt and walked to the 18th four shots clear.
The par 70 course will measure 7,156 yards for the 2017 Open. With even just a little wind, it will be a tough proposition and, in a stiff wind, it will make a mockery of the modern technology at the professionals’ disposal. There are plenty of doglegs here and finding the fairway will be the most important task for the field.
Three key holes
499 yards of a par four and a big left-to- right dogleg to boot. The bunker in the elbow sits at 274 yards and, if you can’t clear it from the tee, a long and tricky second awaits. Find that bunker and par is gone. This will undoubtedly be the hardest hole on the course as it plays into the prevailing wind.
The most charming of the par threes, the 12th is just over 180 yards in length. It plays from a high tee and hits over a hollow that then rises to a narrow green tucked up hard to rising dunes behind. Four bunkers protect the front and the hole feels utterly natural. It won’t be the toughest hole, but the cameras will love it.
The 15th hole boasts 15 bunkers, with only two of these at the green. A tee shot on the fairway is crucial and coming so late in the round it offers big birdie opportunities — or better — as it is only 542 yards.
The winner will receive $1.85million (approx. Stg £1.4m/€1.61m). The prize will be paid in US dollars for the first time, a potential consequence of Brexit and the devalued pound. This compares to $1.98 million (€1.73m) won by Masters Champion, Sergio Garcia, and $2.16m (€1.88m) won by US Open Champion, Brooks Koepka. Last year’s Open winner, Henrik Stenson, received just over $1.5m (€1.3m). And should you be the runner up at Royal Birkdale, you will earn $1.07m (€930,,000) as part of the total purse of $10.25m (€8.93m).
Green Fees are not cheap here, nor would you expect them to be, coming in at £165-£245 (€187)- (€278) per round.
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